Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Request for Better Employment Standards for Autistic Adults

The following is an open letter to all legislators in Salem, Oregon and Washingtion, D.C. It is composed of ideas discussed by a self-advocacy group that I run in Eugene.

Dear Congressman / Senator:

As you may or may not be aware, the combined unemployment and underemployment rate for young adults with autism is estimated about 90%. We feel that this is far too high. Many autistic adults are willing and able to work and support themselves. We feel that they should be given the opportunity to do so.

Vocational Rehabilitation does exist to help disabled people, including autistic people, find employment. However, many people who use this system are required to work for free in an assessment position, often for years. We feel that a job assessment, if it does not come with full pay, should be capped at no more than one month. After that amount of time, a caseworker should be able to ascertain what an individual is capable of.

Once work is found, many employers look for ways to pay disabled workers as little as possible, taking advantage of the fact that it is legal to pay disabled workers less than minimum wage. We feel that this is wrong, and that everyone deserves the dignity of a living wage.

However, we also understand that some workers are so severely disabled that they do not produce minimum wage level work. In these cases, we feel that it would be appropriate for the employer to pay the worker what the worker is worth, and for the state to pay the rest, at least up to minimum wage.

Often, the work that is sought by employment agencies is very low level, such as filling envelopes or pushing brooms, and often part-time. These types of jobs lack dignity.

Currently, Walgreens is demonstrating that autistic workers are capable of the same unskilled jobs that are sought for non-autistic workers. Microsoft and Freddie Mac are demonstrating that autistic workers are capable of professional positions. We ask that all employment agencies working for disabled people consider these possibilities.

We feel that in the long run, finding meaningful employment for autistic adults will result in fewer tax dollars being spent, as they will be able to earn their own living, and no longer be collecting financial supports.

In addition, we believe there are broader economic benefits to having more autistic adults working. First, it is possible to make more money from even an unskilled job than from government benefits. That results in more money being spent in the economy. Second, when an autistic adult is working, he/she is providing work to an employer in exchange for his/her paycheck, which produces more wealth in the economy.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and please consider taking action on these issues.

David Olson
Director of A.V.O.I.C.E.
Autistics Voicing Our Interests in Change and Equality

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The R-Word

Why is the word 'retarded' considered offensive? It's clear that people are becoming more accepting of the concept of neurodiversity, but this is a topic that many people still don't fully understand.

As you are no doubt aware, this is a word that has been applied to individuals with intellectual, social, and neurological disabilities. When I was growing up, 'mental retardation' was the accepted term for many people within these groups. Of course, at the time, it was widely believed that these individuals were mostly unaware of the world around them.

We know differently now. Most research suggests that even the most profoundly disabled individuals have some awareness of what happens around them. Today, many disability advocates request that we do not use the word 'retarded' to describe people with intellectual and other disabilities. To do so minimizes them, implying that they don't count as full humans.

But what if a person actually is so profoundly disabled that they actually have no awareness of the people surrounding them, or what is being said about them? Is it okay to refer to them as 'retarded?' I think we should look to the previous paragraph to find our answer.

We've already decided that it's inappropriate to degrade an individual if it's discovered that person has some level of awareness of the activities of others. We've also learned that it isn't always obvious when a person is. Would it not be appropriate to assume this may also be true of even more profoundly disabled people?

Further, we should perhaps ask ourselves why we need to use such a dismissive term to refer to anyone, regardless of their mental faculties. Shouldn't we show each individual as much human dignity as can be afforded to them?

Having said all of that, I don't find that as offensive as some other uses of the word. Certainly, it is dismissive to use a word, whose dictionary definition is 'slowed down or impeded,' to refer to intellectually, socially, or neurologically disabled people.

My primary contention with the word 'retarded' is its use to describe stupidity, frivolity, or defectiveness. For example, referring to a friend who is displaying less than intelligent behavior as a 'retard,' or describing their actions as 'retarded.' I've also heard people describing their phones or cars and 'retarded' if they aren't working properly.

This use of the word is thoroughly ingrained in our language now. In fact, it's not unlikely that you occasionally use it without realizing. You may not even be aware of the offensive nature of it. Most people even draw a strong distinction between the current use of the word and the now archaic clinical use.

Allow me to briefly talk about the history of the word, as I believe that will help you to understand.

The original, non-offensive, dictionary definition of the verb to retard is to slow down, impede, or hold back. You'll hear this use when people are talking about engine timing, music, and fluid dynamics. It's unlikely that you'll find many people in the disability community that have a problem with this use.

In 1895, the term 'mental retardation' started being used to denote slowed or impeded development of the mind. As I said before, it was widely believed until relatively recently that those labeled mentally retarded had little to no ability to understand the world around them. Unfortunately, society saw little use for these individuals.

Because the label of mental retardation also used to imply low intelligence, both parts of the term gradually found their way into mainstream culture as ways for people to call each other stupid. Only one seems to have stuck, possibly because 'mental' actually means of or pertaining to the mind. The word 'retarded' has gradually come to refer to anything that the speaker believes is not optimal.

Coming back to the topic at hand, many in the disability community are offended by the use of the word 'retarded,' as a synonym for stupid, because of this history. When you call your friend retarded, you are not just insulting your friend. You are are insulting every person with any intellectual, neurological, or social disability by using them as a comparison.

At this point in the conversation, some people will start talking about free speech. They don't want their right to use certain words to be taken away. Let me assure you, I have no desire for any law passed against the use of the word 'retarded.' I'm only trying to say how it looks to the rest of us.

I find most people want to be accepting of diversity. There are just some gaps in their understanding. I hope this has filled some of those gaps.

On the other hand, if you want to look like a dismissive bigot, perpetually stuck in the 1990's, by all means, continue using this word. The rest of us can move on without you.